Sunday, July 25, 2010


I remember the children of Harian Boho when I lived there in 1979-80. They ran around in packs, and had huge, limpid black eyes. They were beautiful. 

This time, when I was back to give a copy of Legacy to Ompu Sihol’s grandson, now a grown man, I was once again struck by the children of Harian Boho. Several crowded around in front of me. They were very young, perhaps 5 years old, and just like I remembered, fully innocent and unself-conscious. They stood in front of me, staring, unblinking, their eyes fathomless and black. They stared intently, uncompromisingly.  It wasn’t just their deep eyes, their full attention was focused on me. They were recording everything, every movement I made, every hair in my nose. I am certain that when I go back to Harian Boho in 10 years time, and I run into them, teenagers by then, they will still be able to recount every single detail of what transpired on that day in June 2010. 

I am sure of this because that was my experience this time around. When we arrived in Harian Boho and I got out of the vehicle to ask a group of young men how I could make my way to my weaving teacher, Ompu Sihol’s village (I no longer remembered the path), they asked me if I was Sandra. I had spent few months there in 1980, 30 years earlier, and since then had been back only once for an hour or two. I was taken aback that they should know who I was. Perhaps they had this knowledge from stories?  What other white woman would want to know where Ompu Sihol lived? But who were they? I had no notion of even how to reciprocate their attentiveness.

More than once, I was taken aback in the same way.
When I knocked on Nai Ati’s door in Silalahi and asked her if she still knew me, she responded with no hesitation after 24 years: “Si Sandy?”
In Berastagi, Nande Pulung, after 24 years, still knew everything that transpired during my last visit. She was surprised that I no longer knew the way to Nande Peringitten’s house because, as she pointed out, she had taken me there the last time! For my part? Quite honestly, I would no longer have recognized
Nande Peringitten’s house if my life had depended on it (although I recognized the interior because I had a photograph of it), and I had no recollection of ever going there on foot, let alone with Nande Pulung.
And then there was Boru Pandiangan Ny. Siregar in Muara for whom the picture of her in the front of Legacy was no surprise because she still had the snapshot that I had sent to her 24 years ago and fetched it easily.
Nai Ganda had an accurate recall of the textile types that we had talked about 24 years earlier, she knew which ones I had purchased and she critically inspected the pages of Legacy with an eye to which ones I had included and which ones had been left out;
Ompu Si Masta remembered that we didn't go through the bargaining ritual when I purchased textiles at her stall; she gave me a fair price and I trusted her. I no longer remembered this when we spoke this last time (but I pretended I did).

And everywhere I went, the children watched me with their deep, black eyes.

At first I made light of it: probably not too much out of the ordinary happens in these places, I told myself, so if something unusual does happen, it must be memorable for them.

But contemplation leads me to believe that there is so much more to it. 

Batak rituals or indigenous legal "courts", were public fora out in the open. The bystanders were witnesses.   To acknowledge their role, they were given a few token coins. The events were thus parked in memory. The witnesses served as the archive; there was no other kind, and cultures need their stores of information.

There were no schools and there were no books as recording devices. As I pondered it further, I developed the awareness that memory and accurate observation were everything, everything in the sense of history and the perpetuation of culture.

Memory is apprenticeship; memory is the ability to re-stage a ritual; memory is oral history; memory is mythology, legends, tales; memory is the kinship system that the Batak used to be able to trace 25 generations back; memory is the way to get to the market a week’s walk away along mountain paths; memory is the ability to recite prayers, to play that marvellously complex and subtle Batak music, to dance, to cook, to look after the garden, to conduct rites of divination. Memory is the knowledge that is available when books (and now the internet) are not. A thought world is pecisely that: the way of life that is hung on the framework of socially recognized ways of perceiving that are transferred from one generation to the next. The thought world is merged with life as it is lived.

I began to consider the mnemonic tools that I know that the Batak had. The pustaha, or bark books, were mnemonic tools par excellence.  They were used in combination with memory, to jog it. There were little ditties that Ompu Sihol sang so that she could keep track of the complex counts of yarn and cycles involved in producing a perfectly symmetrical textile. The conventions in weaving, too, were memory joggers: right and left, forward and back, up and down, so that you could resume where you left off. I have made the argument in my Back to the Villages project that the textiles themselves are mnemonic devices; they allow the reproduction of the designs they exhibit. Logically, therefore, weaving is the merging of memory with physical performance -- which is yet another form of memory.  This, surely, is the essence of ritual: incribing memory, including that known by the body, into the tactile, the visual, the perceptible world. Ritual is memory generating expression. In turn, the expression is committed to memory. A cycle of life.

It was as if those little children in Harian Boho became so absorbed in the task of observing me that they had become one with me, inhabiting my skin. It was only when my eyes shifted and intentionally caught theirs, when I said something gently and directly to them, thus introducing a boundary over which could be given and received, that they were suddenly overcome with the shyness that comes of self-consciousness and they shrank and looked away. 

Those eyes. Those terribly endearing, unfathomable, relentless eyes. Already to the roots of their very beings, they were children of another culture.

See Back to the Villages - the map!

Friday, July 23, 2010

A revolutionary act (for an academician)

At the beginning of my journey, Rithaony Hutajulu said that she thought that my book could be important to Suarasama, the music group that she and her husband have started. I knew that she wanted to have a copy and I wanted to give her one, but I was hesitant. The books were earmarked for weavers and those depicted on Legacy’s pages. By the end of the journey, I knew that I wanted Suarasama to have a copy (and not just because there were fewer weavers out there). I handed it over to Ritha’s husband, Irwansyah Harahap, also an ethnomusicologist, performer and professor at the University of North Sumatra, on 26 June. 

Much had changed in my thinking in the interim and I had begun to see these people as key figures in Batak cultural promotion and revival. They were connected to all the right people who would be able to contextualize the importance of my work. They would use my book in their own work. They figured, now, among my most important recipients!

I had been away from the region for a long time. During my trip, I began to discern and increasingly understand a new set of ideas. Like an undercurrent, concern for the loss of indigenous culture is growing. The proportions of this loss are vastly more disturbing than most of us know. The Canadian anthropologist, Wade Davis, said it well in the first of his CBC Massey Lectures entitled The Wayfarers (2009):

“... just as the biosphere, the biological matrix of life, is being severely eroded by the destruction of habitat and the resultant loss of plant and animal species, so too is the ethnosphere, only at a far greater rate. No biologist, for example, would suggest that 50 percent of all species are moribund. Yet this, the most apocalyptic scenario in the realm of biological diversity, scarcely aproaches what we know to be the most optimistic scenario in the realm of cultural diversity.” (Davis, 2009, pp 2-3)

The loss of Batak textiles is not just the loss of a few techniques and patterns, it is the loss of cultural knowledge in which a thought system, cultural history, and a way of life are inscribed. It can be written down and recorded, as I have made an attempt to do in Legacy, but words can only point to non-verbal knowledge, capture it the way formaldehyde can preserve biological species. The only true preservation is life itself, or when it comes to weaving, practice. By practice I do not mean the execution of techniques but rather the performance of culture in a holistic sense. While manipulating a backstrap loom, Batak weavers enact and perpetuate a way of seeing and thinking, they operate within a paradigm and if they are skilled, they add to it, making it grow, allowing it to adapt, ensuring its vitality. This is what apprenticeship is about for the youth, and teaching on the part of the elderly: the intergenerational links that ensure cultural survival.

It was satisfying to learn that my Indonesian ethnomusicologist colleagues were practitioners as well as recorders of ancient knowledge. They understand it and they are Batak. When I think about this, I long to go and sit in a backstrap loom to truly learn what I have written about. During my 30-year labour over the book, I neglected to weave!

How misguided our institutions of higher learning have been to so strongly privilege the word (logocentrism) above practice! I perceive the legions of anthropologists at great and costly international conferences, in painful contrast to the loss of cultural practice by indigenous peoples due to lack of support, in these terms. Documentation is perhaps a symptom of doomsday thinking, a pathetic way to hang onto a shadow of what is fated to disappear. It is a style and product of Western ego and Western culture that earned its predominance through our technical prowess (Industrial Revolution). Our consequent blindness has yielded our greatest proceeds, but they are now proving to be our greatest weakness. Western academics “play the game” while that which we study dies out.

Perhaps the distribution of Legacy this past month has been my greatest revolutionary act in the history of my involvement with the book and with academe. Breaking the tacit boundary between the researcher and the researched, allowing Legacy to potentially have a legacy for practitioners!

Biodiversity is not saved in a bottle; it is allowed to run free in viable habitats. So, too, cultural diversity. I find myself reiterating what I have also heard others say: the Batak weaving arts, while specific to the Batak, are a Universal Human Legacy, a well-explored product of a facet of human thought and culture. They are irreplaceable. Loss of this rich vein of culture is a loss for all of humanity.

Ritha! Irwansyah! I am so happy to have been able to present you with one of my books! It was given to you courtesy the largess and insightfulness of the very admirable Volkenkunde Museum in Leiden, The Netherlands. Please do use it!

See Back to the Villages - the map!

Memorable moments with memorable people

On the afternoon of 23 June, we decided to go to Parapat rather than Balige. My former research assistant, Linda Hutagalung, lives there but has a restaurant in Silindung. She spends half of each week in each place. The long busride is tiring for her. She had been such a wonderful hostess and guide, so generous to us, that bringing her to Parapat in our vehicle so that she wouldn’t have to face the journey on the bus was the one thing we could do to reciprocate a little bit. But we had a stop to make before we could leave.

The first was Pasar Horas, the Tarutung market. We had been there earlier in the day. On page 80 of
Legacy there is a photograph of a textile shop in Tarutung. I wanted to find the owner and give her a copy of the book. Linda knew her (yet another member of the family). Apparently the shop had not survived the earthquake in the 90s and the owner, Rosella boru Hutagalung, now had a stall in the market. Linda had led me to it first thing in the morning. Rosella boru Hutagalung was a real pleasure to meet. While I had photographed her shop, I had never met her. I was impressed by her calmness and her kind eyes. She was overjoyed with the book which I presented in the name of a dear friend, Marion van der Heuvel, in The Netherlands. Her stall was very nicely furbished with the latest fashions in ulos and she was knowledgeable and obviously in close touch with weavers. If ever a textile stall proprietor was going to make good use of the book, she was it. 

She insisted upon giving something in return for the book but searched to no avail for a particular textile with the latest in supplementary weft patterning. We were returning that evening, at her bidding, to receive it. With much merriment, I was diulosi, i.e. in a semi-ritual fashion it was hung around my shoulders. And I do very much admire the cloth. While I had seen the rose motif executed with beadwork (p 501 of Legacy; see also Ompu Si Tohap’s Ulos Sirara pp. 61 and 377), I had never seen it executed in supplementary weft – and such fine work it is! This was a particularly joyful way to be introduced to a new invention. May it become a popular fad and Rosella boru Hutagalung benefit from it!

Our responsibilities in Silindung having been filled, all 5 of us clambered into our vehicle (our chauffeur, Pak Jerry loved keramaian or merriment and lots of people, so he was only too happy to oblige) and started on our journey to Parapat.

 Then there was another stop, this time at Si Singamangaradja University (see the blog on Student Needs) and after that, we found Pelangi Kasih, the residence where Ibu Nuria Gultom is spending the twilight years of her very full and active life. She was the head of the diaconess school in Balige (next to the associated nurse’s residence) when I lived there in 1979-80. She had befriended me with such boundless kindness that I knew that I could never repay her. Certainly, the gentle caring that she and Ibu Ria Hutabarat (see blog Hutabarat) provided were driving forces behind completing Legacy. Ibu Gultom had also given me a very precious textile (page 364 Legacy) when I left in 1980. I wanted to tell her with my book how much I valued her, her gift, her culture, her trust in me. I gave the gift in the name of the Soroptimists of Arnhem as I felt the kinship between Ibu Gultom’s striving for the betterment of women and that of the Soroptimists. In addition, I knew that the book would do well on her bookshelves because many women would gain access to it. Ibu Gultom was still very active and involved in projects for the betterment of lives, a singularly dear and admirable woman. 

See Back to the Villages - the map!


On the 24th of June, our task was to get from Parapat, on the East side of the lake, to Balige, on the plain south of the lake, to complete the presentations for Uluan and Holbung.

I wanted to give a book to the elderly weaver depicted on page 461 (it is her loom on page 6) – she had been wonderful to talk with - but I knew that she would be deceased. We made a few stops but were not able to find her descendants or anyone who knew her. Still, I wanted to make sure that I left a book behind in the Lumban Julu region where she had lived. I admire the textiles from this region. It was annexed relatively late and some of the nicest old pieces still come from there, but it still feels like one of the most difficult regions to connect with.

By once again letting the spirits of Toba guide us, we found Ompu Okta, and it was both one of the most richly satisfying and one of the saddest meetings of the project (see the description in blog entitled Dilepaskan).

We drove on to Porsea. I remembered very clearly where the couple standing there proudly on page 534 lived in Huta Parparean. When I did a customary Batak yell and knock at the door, the woman who came out immediately recognized the couple depicted on the plasticized picture; it turned out that she -- and everybody else in the village -- was related to them. There were alot of them and they all gathered around me, the strange phenomenon in their midst. There were no weavers among them, so I elected to give the book to the little worried boy in the photograph being held in line by his grandfather’s hand. 

The villagers fetched him and he arrived, all vibrantly grown up, half wet and half naked, apparently interrupted in his work at the fishpond in the back. Overjoyed with the book, he offered me a goldfish in return and we joined him on the trek to the pond. From the clutter and chaos of his village we were suddenly greeted by a beautiful, green and peaceful vista and we expressed our admiration spontaneously and bountifully. The villagers warned us that our delight was a delusion because if we looked carefully at the hills in the background, we would see that they were being clearcut and it was already disturbing their peaceful pond. Such is the environmental drama unfolding right now in Porsea. 

In the end, I came to my senses and turned down the goldfish, pointing out that I had no tank in the car in which to carry it and, at the end of the road, no fire to cook it with (I didn’t say that I was vegetarian). They understood my argument and forgave me and we undertook the trek back to the chaotic, tumultuous village and said our good-byes. The villagers promised that they would show the book to the weavers (probably of ragi hotang textiles) they knew living close by Porsea.

The book was a gift from Sandra Sardjono who is using textiles to explore the mysteries of her homeland.

The next stop was Laguboti. I was anxious to find Ompu Si Masta (depicted on page 143 of Legacy). I last met her in 2003 in the Balige market. Although we had built a strong tie during my research in 1986, we no longer recognized each other; we had both changed. I sat in her stall and began to ask questions, apparently just as then, about the names of textile types. She gave me the superficial answers typically given to the casual shopper but I kept pestering her for more details. Finally she looked at me and said, “There used to be a Canadian girl who knew all the names of Batak textiles. She used to come to me to learn them all.” “What was her name,” I asked, suspecting that she would mention my name. When she did, I let the cat out of the bag. “That’s me”, I said. “I’m her.” Then she fell on me and smothered me with hugs.

It was a long search, but we finally met up with her in her home. Her son led us there and we waited until she emerged from a meeting with a Bibelfrau. I warned Mas Nashir to be prepared for her exuberance and keep his finger on the shutter release of the camera... And so we were launched into a joyful afternoon. She took us all out for an extended lunch and entertained us in her extroverted way, remembering so many incidents and details. “You were my friend,” she said. “I treated you fairly and we never haggled on the prices of the textiles I found for you.” She had been a wonderful source of textile types and taught me a great deal.

Now she was well into her 70s but had too much energy to stop her work. She still sold textiles at the market, three times a week, still liked it, and wanted to continue with it for as long as she could. I didn’t get a sense of what she thought of the book. Perhaps she will only formulate her impression after she has found the time to study it. I wonder if she will take it with her to the market? May it remind her of our many discussions about textile types the way it reminds me of her. I had been so worried that I would never have the opportunity to see her again and rejoiced at this opportunity to meet her in her home together with her family.

Her book was donated by the Soroptimists of Arnhem.

See Back to the Villages - the map!

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Hutagalung II

I lived in Hutagalung for 8 months in 1986. A colonial house in that little village filled with drying rice was my pied-รก-terre. Not surprisingly, I had various presentations of Legacy to make in the village and was not able to fit it into the 15th of June. I was able to return again on June 23rd with my photographer, MJA Nashir.

Nai Ratna had been my closest neighbour (see pages 157 and 472 of Legacy). She wove the side panels for one ragidup textile type each week. When her two daughters came home from school, they wove the centre panel. Diligent and precise workers, they supported themselves through school in this way. Hutagalung is known as the “ragidup village”; that cloth type is its specialty. Everything I learned about the techniques used to weave a ragidup (e.g. p. 490-491), I learned from this family.

Nai Ratna was at home when we visited. She was old now and she had “retired” from weaving. One of her daughters, Monna, was still living with her. She had married a man who had learned how to make tofu and together they had gone into business becoming the biggest tofu producer in the valley. Their operation was located in the back of the house. She no longer wove, either.

Our visit was brief but light-hearted. Nai Ratna and Monna were happy to receive the book courtesy of Tomas Murray who expressed great pleasure at being able to give something back to the people whose textiles he admired and enjoyed so much. 

saying goodbye to Nia Ratna and Mona

And then we took a tour of their tofu-plant, alas so much more lucrative than textile-production. But they are doing well with their business and I am happy for them.

Nai Arta lived a few doors down. I didn’t know her well. I remembered her as being shy, diligent, poor, working until the wee hours on her ragidup sisabulung using the light of an oil lamp -- and rubbing and complaining about her sore eyes. When we peered in on her, she was weaving the centre panel of a ragidup (not a ragidup sisabulung; she only did that on commission, she explained). She looked very well and she was wearing glasses (perhaps that had been the problem, so many years ago). Her adult daughter who was with her also looked hale and hearty. I felt relieved to see this.

Nai Arta was overjoyed with the book and her face was wreathed in smiles. I explained to her that my former professor, Shuichi Nagata (University of Toronto), had selected her specifically as the recipient of his gift. He wished her well, especially hoping that her eyes were handling the strains of weaving. His message touched her.

It was a memorable transfer for me, as Professor Nagata had introduced me to Batak ethnology during my Master’s year at the University of Toronto. He was my first guide on the path that culminated in Legacy in cloth and with this visit.

Nai Ganda’s house was a few villages deeper into Hutagalung. I had spent endless hours with her (pages 86, 156 and 442 of Legacy). Her store of knowledge seemed to have no limits. In addition, I had always admired her strength. Her lot in life was not easy, but she was always positive and cheerful. It seemed to be a decision and a discipline. She was hard-headed and she worked very hard. As an ikat-maker, she remembered the lessons she had learned from her talented and knowledgeable mother-in-law and frequently referred to her as the most important source of her own knowledge. Now she had become old and she didn’t recognize me until she peered into my face in the light. Then her greeting was so warm and dear that I felt my tears come. I was so grateful that I was able to meet with her once again. Her husband was also still alive and we all sat together in the front room.

It had been refurbished. Nai Ganda produced an old photograph that reminded me of the way it had been. I was sitting at a low table writing down the information that she was giving to me. I had no recollection of the photograph and wonder who took it. Mas Nashir made a copy of it for me. Nai Ganda also had old letters that I had sent her, and a copy of my PhD dissertation that was well thumbed through. 

the old photo of me writing down information from Nai Ganda

Nai Ganda was one of my most precious contacts and so I had suggested that my mother donate her gift of Legacy to Nai Ganda. I know that this was meaningful to Nai Ganda.

We went through Legacy together and talked about her textile design experiments; she was curious to see which ones I had put in the book (pages 201, 277, 409) and she pulled out several more to show me how her thinking had developed. She was older and she no longer wove, but she hadn’t changed. I have given her my book, but I don’t think that she could ever know how much I appreciate and care for her.

 rice drying outside Nai Ganda's house


Traditional Batak time is circular, like the warp of a textile, like the composition of ritual music, like the phases of the moon and the annual passage of the stars through the night sky, just as kinship categories repeat every 3 generations, just like the rice season that returns over and over again. Everything changes and everything remains the same.

When I went to Hutagalung on 15 June, they were bringing in the harvest. The village square was full of rice spread out thinly on mats to dry in the sun. My thoughts immediately went back to the first time that I saw Linda, who later became my assistant. She was working on the harvest and the village looked exactly like it did this time. I remember that I liked Linda immediately.

Linda was with me now again, and her brother Jonny who was wielding my camera. We entered the house where Linda’s parents had once lived and where her sister now lived. In that house were Mamak and Bapak of Selamat Scott, their first child, now 24 years ago. In the photograph on page 89 of Legacy, while his mother and father were ritually eating goldfish and rice and being encircled by a ragidup textile to bless their union and the coming generations of their budding new family, he was suckling at the breast. Selamat was now almost the same age as his parents at that time. Linda’s parents were now deceased. The generations are continuing.

I gave the three of them a copy of Legacy in the name of a donor who prefers to remain anonymous for the internet. The whole village, the extended family, gathered to bear witness (and to satisfy their curiosity).

Then the first drops of rain fell. As soon as decorum would allow it, the house emptied and they all ran out to shove the rice into sacks (goni – derived from the same Sanskrit word as the English gunny) so that they could bring it in from the rain.  Just as they have been doing for generations. This was their food for the coming year.

The Batak ritual name for their rice-fields, as the gift from the father to ensure the well-being of his married daughter, is “the ulos (textile) that does not wear out.”

See Back to the Villages - the map!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Unexpected Twists

Giving away books in North Sumatra sounds like an easy job but by times, selecting recipients was challenging. Very often I found myself wondering how things would pan out and I flew by the seat of my pants. A favourite example of this took place in Nainggolan, the southernmost tip of Samosir Island on 21 June. On page 523 of Legacy, there is a picture of a male twiner whom I met back in 1979-80, but I have no recollection of how I met him, his name, or whom I was with at the time. Moreover the likelihood that he was still alive was remote as he was already fairly senior thirty years ago. Nevertheless, by virtue of being depicted there, he - or his descendants – had a right to the book.

As luck would have it, it was market day in Nainggolan when we arrived. The streets were teeming with people from all of the neighbouring communities. I threw my hands in the air and rolled my eyes. “It will be a miracle if we find him,” I said to Mas Nashir. But we both believe in miracles and did not give up. We jostled our way into the market, asking how to get to the textile sellers. There turned out to be several stalls, but one caught our attention because of the fineness of the hand-plaited straw bags that the proprietor was also selling. We admired them, learning that they, too, are teetering on the edge of extinction, when Mas Nashir advised me to ask the seller if she recognized the man on the plasticized page of Legacy that I had brought with me. Bingo! Immediate jackpot! Not only did she know him and was thrilled to be reminded of him by way of the photograph, she was a family member well-connected with his children and was willing to pass on the book to them. He had indeed already passed away.

Our luck seemed like a stroke of divine intervention, but in retrospect, I wonder what our chances would have been at finding him by asking anyone else. Our stall proprietor immediately yelled across to her neighbour in the stall next to hers to come and see Parhusip’s picture. Nainggolan is the place of origin of the Parhusip marga and a goodly number of the people in the town would have been related to him.

In Balige, the home of the Pardede clan or marga, our luck was different, however. The morning of June 24 found us searching diligently for the home of Ama ni Paung Pardede. I had a vague recollection of the house where the photograph on page 146 of Legacy was hung, but I couldn’t remember where it was in the town. My cousin (in Batak kinship terms), Peiza Hutabarat, guided us to the Pardede kampungs and even in the rain, jumped out of the vehicle again and again to ask people for help. We couldn’t find anybody who knew Ama ni Paung.

Because I have an unshakeable belief that my world is unfolding as it should, when my luck appears to have totally run out, I switch gears and ask myself what lesson I should be learning from the situation. That question is always disorienting at first but usually the answer is right under my nose and I have to learn to see it. Suddenly, in Balige, I knew the answer. I ran over to Peiza while she was knocking at yet one more door (luckily the person was not at home) and I asked her to come back to the car. “I want to give the book to you,” I said. Peiza had shown such appreciation for it, had understood the goals of the Back to the Villages project and had helped me so sincerely and unstintingly in so many ways that I suddenly became aware that there was nobody in Balige who could be a better recipient. She was delighted and promised to show it to as many people as possible. She explained that she was building a lending library and she would add Legacy to it. 

Peiza is a lawyer who came back from Jakarta to assume family responsibilities back in her home town of Balige. “What if I find the owner of the picture (on p. 146 of Legacy)?” she asked. “You could give him the laminated picture,” I said, “but the book is yours.” The decision felt right. One more transfer solved in an unexpected way. Such are the twists in the road linking the past and the present. Another seed planted.

See Back to the Villages - the map!


Hutabarat is the name of a village in the Silindung Valley and the name of a marga or lineage. The Hutabarats hail from Hutabarat.

Today marks three weeks since my return to The Netherlands. It always takes awhile to adjust. My transition has been smoothed, this past weekend, by two guests, Ibu Bonaria Hutabarat and Dr. Kristel Westerhausen. Ibu Hutabarat was the head of the nurse’s residence in Balige where I stayed in 1979-80; Dr. Westerhausen worked at the hospital across the street for many years, but returned to Germany in 1982. The depth of kindness and caring in these two women endeared them to me forever.

Moreover, we are sisters. By chance, I was adopted into the Hutabarat marga and I am as many generations removed from the apical ancestor as Ibu Ria. The same goes for Dr. Westerhausen who was also adopted by the clan. We three sisters were together again for the first time since 1980.

Giving a copy of Legacy to Ibu Ria was high on my list of priorities in North Sumatra but she was visiting her sister, Dr. Westerhausen in Germany during the month of June. I didn’t get my chance until this past weekend.

Ibu Ria, now a vibrant 81-year-old, is the daughter of Raja Renatus Hutabarat about whom I write on page 84 of Legacy. I know the textiles that he sent to J.E. Jasper’s Annual Market in Surabaya in 1909, for which he won first prize, because they are now stored in the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam. I will never forget the day that Ibu Ria came to me in Balige and showed me the certificate that he had received on that occasion; she had saved it carefully for many years.

Before I left Indonesia in 1980, Ibu Ria and her brother gave me the textile depicted on page 395 of Legacy in a little goodbye ceremony in their home. (Ibu Ria told me this past weekend that the textile was very old and had been a gift from a member of the Siregar clan, from the southern Batak area.) The son and daughter-in-law of Ibu Ria’s brother are depicted on p. 73, when they baptized their baby Helen. There were many reasons, therefore, to visit their home during this past trip, even though Ibu Ria was then in Germany.

The visit took place on June 15. Jonny Hutagalung, my Batak brother, took the photographs. I sat down with Mamak Helen (Duma, Br. Simunjuntak) and presented her with the book courtesy of the Indonesian Heritage Society. The moment when I showed her her picture was very merry. Afterwards, her father-in-law inspected the book very carefully. I wish I knew what his impressions were.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Gratifying look

My friend and webmaster, Pamela Cross, asked me upon my return whether I look differently at Legacy in cloth now that I have taken it to Indonesia. The answer is an unequivocal “yes”.

I remember how anxiously I lived towards the first presentation of the book to a Batak weaver. I had talked up my Back to the Villages project for so long and had received so many donations. I felt that alot was at stake. To many people the project seemed a bit strange given that the book is in English and not yet translated (I brazenly write “yet” because I am immodestly convinced that it will only be a matter of time). I believed that the book would be of use to weavers because they can read the photos better than anybody else, and because they need and deserve a pictorial record of their repertory. Anything I could write or say would, relatively speaking, be of less importance. How relieved and gratified I was when the book was received by the weavers with such intense interest and appreciation.

One of my favourite illustrations of this happened in the Silindung Valley, in the twining village of Sait ni Huta. When we pulled up, there were several women of all ages twisting fringes and twining edges in front of their homes. I selected one person to sit with and gradually more and more villagers clustered around us. Because of their weaving speciality, I opened the book to the pages of twined patterning (pp. 526 - 528) and watched them react. They immediately pointed out the patterns that they were familiar with, fetched textiles out of their homes to show me modern edges that are not represented in the book, enquired whether I had illustrations of beadwork as well (luckily, I did - p. 530 – taken in their village!) and discussed the differences between their work and that of their colleagues in Laguboti (near Lake Toba) and Kaban Jahe (Karo Batak area). The discussion was animated and enthusiastic.

On a whim, I showed them the twined bag on page 406. I was so curious how they would react to this rare and old bag. None of them had ever seen one and at first they doubted that it could have been twined. Then they started offering suggestions as to how it had been made. If the conversation had been lively, it was now almost a brawl with alternate, competing suggestions but nobody had the courage to take me up on my offer to pay for a replica of the bag. When I left, they still had not yet come to a conclusion about how it had been made. I realized that they needed more detailed photographs of the bottom of the bag and visual proof that it had not been made flat and then stitched up the side. But I didn’t leave discouraged. I thought, “They invented this bag once in the past and they are clever and skilled, so they can re-invent it or devise something entirely new.” I left them with the book and in the knowledge that they had enjoyed the puzzle.

What I don’t know, however, is whether their pride was bolstered by the book. For the most part, they don’t know much about books and what a major undertaking Legacy represents. It could be the implications of this book won’t sink in until later when they have had the time to ponder the celebration of their art that the book represents.

My next step that day was the village of Parbubu where Ompu SiTohap used to live (p. 61). She was no longer alive and so her son and daughter-in-law received the book. I witnessed their happiness at seeing her in the book showing off her favourite textile (now in Jakarta, inherited by her daughter). Whether there was pride in her weaving skills and her being a representative of Batak weavers, I don’t know.

Time may provide the answer to this question: will weavers show off the book to prove their technical excellence? Will it inspire young women to take up the art and older women to once again try their hand at it? Will it spark the development of an exhibition or two? Will local politicians heed a new urge to acknowledge and display the works of weavers within their jurisdictions? Before I left The Netherlands to return to the Batak villages, an employee at the Indonesian Embassy paused for a moment while looking through the book, “I have grown up seeing weavers and textiles for sale at the markets; I just always took it for granted, but now I see that it has potential for tourism...”

I do not think that I made a wrong decision to give copies of Legacy to weavers and villagers who could never afford to buy it (even imaging they were ever able to find it on the publisher’s (KITLV) website!). The hunger for information in the villages alone means that the gift was useful. Will there be concrete outcomes to the
Back to the Villages project? (No funding agency would support me in my project because I couldn’t demonstrate this.) I have to sit back and be patient, allow the books to develop their own life in the villages....Maybe the effects will never be measurable.

In Medan, when the project was completed, I received a text message on my mobile phone from Ompu Okta (see blog “Dilepaskan”). She wanted to know what the title of the book was in Indonesian....Obviously, she was still preoccupied with her gift....

See Back to the Villages - the map!